R.F. Kuang is not new to the literary scene. She is already a bestselling fantasy author, as well as a doctoral student in East Asian languages and literature at Yale. "Yellowface," Kuang's fifth novel and first foray into literary fiction, is being hailed as a biting satire of the publishing industry.
The story follows June, a 20-something white author struggling to revive her writing career while harboring envy of her frenemy and fellow writer, Athena Liu. Whereas June's debut flopped, Athena has had runaway success as the latest Asian-American author of note. After Athena's accidental death, June steals her unreleased manuscript and passes it off as her own.
The novel is "a breezy and propulsive read" and "a satirical literary thriller that's enjoyable and uncomfortable in equal measure," author Amal El-Mohtar wrote in a review for The New York Times. "Yellowface" is also "the most granular critique of commercial publishing I've encountered in fiction," El-Mohtar added, "and seeing the cruel, indifferent vagaries of one's industry so ably skewered is viciously satisfying."
Kuang fully intends to make readers uncomfortable in her exploration of the pervasiveness of cultural appropriation, racism, and tokenism in the publishing industry, based on her own experiences as a published author. "Reading about racism should not be a feel-good experience," Kuang said in a separate interview with the Times. "I do want people to be uncomfortable with the way that they're trained to write about and market and sell books, and be uncomfortable with who's in the room, and how they're talking about who's in the room."
The meta satire is a "strong commentary on the exploitation and rigors writers face under the pressure to be successful," writer, editor, and literary critic Keishel Williams wrote for NPR. The book is a "multi-layer, complex conversation that tackles a few things about the publishing industry at once." Cultural appropriation, a central theme, "galvanizes the entire story and at various angles challenges the idea of what kind of stories writers are allowed to write given their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.," Williams said."This type of interrogation of the coopting of culture and stories for capital gain is well-received."